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Nutrition Nuggets
Your dog's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your dog, how much food to feed, and the differences in dog foods, so your dog gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

DHA - It’s Not Just for Senior Dogs

November 30, 2012 / (1) comments

I recently wrote about the benefits of including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)in the diets of cancer patients. Cancer is typically a disease of old age, but I hope my previous post didn’t give you the impression that DHA is something that should only be of interest to the owners of senior dogs. If anything, ensuring that puppies take in adequate amounts of DHA is even more critical.

First some background. DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is found in fatty, cold water fish like salmon and is a major component in fish oil supplements. Vegetarian DHA typically comes from seaweed. Flaxseed contains another type of omega-3 fatty acid that people can convert into DHA (and EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid) but the ability of dogs to do this appears limited.

Now back to the puppies. A paper published in the September 1, 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked into whether or not foods containing high levels of DHA improved puppies’ "cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal function" when fed after weaning. Previous studies had revealed that feeding DHA rich foods to pregnant females during gestation and lactation and to puppies prior to weaning improved puppies’ retinal activity and "trainability," but this is the first research that I’m aware of investigating whether or not supplementing the diets of older puppies could have similar benefits. This is a relevant question because most owners obtain their pups after weaning and therefore have little control over their DHA intake before this time.

The researchers fed female beagles a food that was adequate for gestation and lactation but contained low levels of DHA for two weeks or more prior to conception and through pregnancy and lactation. The pups stayed with their moms for eight weeks and during that time had access to the same food she was eating. After weaning at eight weeks of age, 48 puppies were divided equally into one of three groups that ate either a low, moderate, and high DHA food until they were one year old.

Unfortunately, the three foods were not identical in all other ways. The high DHA food also contained more vitamin E, taurine, choline, and L-carnitine, so we can’t say with certainty that the differing levels of DHA in the foods were responsible for the variation seen between the groups of pups, but the study’s results certainly point to a potential benefit in supplementing puppies’ diets with DHA after weaning.

The researchers found that "Dietary fortification with fish oils rich in DHA and possibly other nutrients implicated in neurocognitive development following weaning improved cognitive, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in growing dogs."

Specifically, the high-DHA group of puppies had better results “for reversal task learning, visual contrast discrimination, and early psychomotor performance in side-to-side navigation through an obstacle-containing maze than did the moderate-DHA and low-DHA groups. The high-DHA group had significantly higher anti-rabies antibody titers 1 and 2 weeks after vaccination than did other groups. Peak b-wave amplitudes during scotopic electroretinography [a measure of the ability to see in low-light conditions] were positively correlated with serum DHA concentrations at all evaluated time points.”

These findings correlate well with research on people showing that DHA is very important to optimal development of the brain and eyes of babies and young children. A round of DHA for everybody!

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Annette Shaff / via Shutterstock

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  • Studies
    11/30/2012 07:04am

    "The high DHA food also contained more vitamin E, taurine, choline, and L-carnitine"

    This is surprising considering how carefully studies are usually set up.

    It's fascinating that the rabies titer was higher in one group.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.